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Even Watergate, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, isn’t really the Watergate that has become fixed in the public’s collective memory.

Muckrakers mistaken in Watergate overreach

My Dear Protégé:

I note in your most recent correspondence that you have used the term “Watergate” in connection with the recent troubles facing The Administration. You take a view popular among our kind that raising the specter of this famous scandal will convince your prey to turn against The One. I would like to counsel you against walking this path.

First, your instincts are sound. There is much to recommend using Watergate in your work. For 40 years we have relied on it faithfully, hinting at it successfully to bedevil both Democrats and Republicans. Watergate is powerful because it lies at the intersection of ignorance and resonance, like many of our most keen weapons. If I may speak mathematically for a moment, for most people Watergate simply equals bad, and they’ve forgotten (if they ever knew) the collection of facts that led mankind to that conclusion. They know the sum, but not the equation that produced it. Lock the number 5 in the public mind and you can convince them that the addition of any two numbers equals it.

You also face the mounting problem of gaining public attention. Our colleagues in the Twitter, cable news and reality TV branches have succeeded in shredding the modern mind. We see proof in the statistics. Measures of morality, right thinking, posture and empathy have fallen precipitously. Donald Trump, for example, is still popular. There is nothing but glory in this, but it makes it harder for an aspiring scandalmonger to be heard. Naturally, you chose the Watergate analogy to startle their sleeping ears and excite the somnolent masses in a single jolt.

The problem is that the label has become shopworn. The constant application to lesser scandals such as Iran-Contra, the Clinton-Lewinsky imbroglio or the Scooter Libby leak case has scrubbed the analogy down to near meaninglessness. It now signifies overcompensation, telegraphing a weakness in your case. It suggests you are conjuring the ghosts of Watergate because you have so little in the present to frighten men, women and children. We see how this overcompensation fails in other realms: the guilty child who protests his innocence too volubly, the aging Lothario who uses too much hair dye or the purchaser of the vehicle known as the Hummer. The weakening of the Watergate analogy has led some to madness as they search for ever-harder stuff. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., for example, compared President George W. Bush and his administration to the Nazis and Hitler.

You may have many salient points to encourage people to believe in your scandal, but when your Watergate analogy can be easily dismantled into rubble, you will lose your audience for the other points you want to make.

Let me anticipate your objections. You will argue that you only take on scandals that have the potential to become like Watergate and that I censure you too quickly. It is true, in time we may learn something about one of your scandals that does warrant the application of this Watergate analogy. Perhaps you will be lucky enough to find a gem that surpasses Watergate. But we are not there yet.

When you mumble Watergate at the outset, everything that comes after can only seem less spectacular. When a new fact doesn’t live up to the grand billing, your prey will turn away, assuming this is just any old spat between the political parties. Like New Year’s Eve, picnics and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the reality can never match the hype.

Even Watergate wasn’t really Watergate. Modesty forbids me from reminding you of my role in that case, but it took us months and months to slowly disclose information. Had people been on the lookout for blockbuster revelations at the outset, we would have been in a sweat constantly trying to meet demand. We would never have been able to keep up. Or we’d have had to invent an alien invasion to keep people on the beam. But we turned this pace to our advantage: Our greatest moments came by surprise. The entire country was glued to their televisions and learned about secret tapes and phone bugging in real time. Everyone was discovering the next revelation in one astonishing national moment after another. That added immeasurable fuel to our cause because no one had time to mount a defense. It was a surprise attack!

You may be skeptical because my advice relies on the reason and attention span of the American public. As I have long warned, we are many generations from that time when people employed their wits to reach conclusions based on facts and logic. But true scandals are perhaps one of the last places where reason plays a flickering role. You must convince supporters of The Administration that it is at fault. They wake up each morning braced against you, so you must make inroads through their minds, not their hearts.

Some of your less talented colleagues have fallen short of this standard. They are content to simply initiate a “partisan fury” or a media “feeding frenzy.” Don’t aspire to this mediocrity. Merely increasing the flow of saliva among partisans is a low prize. Red-eared tirades on Twitter are too small a trinket. We aim to destabilize the entire operation. For that purpose, we must enlist members of both parties. Watergate succeeded in part because three Republican senators went to their president and asked him to resign. There must be bipartisan outrage to achieve peak scandal.

So, in conclusion: Patience, my young scandalmonger. If something is like Watergate, you will not have to say it is so. The words will form on their lips by themselves.

Most Sincerely,

Muck Raker, Executive Vice President Northeast Region

John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent and author of “On Her Trail.”

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